Fostering Grit in Today's Students, Classrooms and Schools

09/21/2015 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


In her compelling TED Talk, Angela Lee Duckworth posits that grit, not conventional forms of measuring intelligence like IQ or SAT (which, by the way, do not at all measure intelligence), is the greatest predictor of success. If we ask who is successful and why, Duckworth contends successful people are gritty people.

Writers like Carol Dweck (Mindset), Daniel Pink (Drive), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) agree. Dweck describes how important a growth vs. fixed mindset is to success; Pink talks about success and intrinsic motivation; and Gladwell observes that successful people are all willing to put in the "10,000 hours" it takes to be the best in their fields.

While Duckworth acknowledges science knows little about grit, she is convinced that it is comprised of elements of passion, perseverance, and stamina, and she urges schools to "get gritty about getting our kids grittier".

I agree, but here's the problem: in all of their examples, the authors and Duckworth talk about the role of passion in grit. In Drive, Pink describes intrinsic motivation -- an attitude common to gritty people -- in terms of autonomy, mastery, and purpose:

  • Autonomy - the desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery - the urge to get better (and better) at something that matters
  • Purpose - the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Schools can't really get gritty about getting our kids grittier until they put kids in a setting where they have the opportunity to be gritty -- in a setting where they can develop their passions and where they can experience autonomy, mastery and purpose. With the exception of athletics and the arts, all of which traditionally take place outside of the school day, how often do we give kids opportunities to pursue their passions? In school? In their classes? It seems these opportunities go by the wayside after elementary school because students have to focus on "real learning now."

No student is passionate about high stakes testing, about APs, about doing problems 1-30 odd, about hours of homework that supports rote learning. No student is passionate about sitting in class and taking notes. For too many schools, it seems that their main goal is to make kids good students, a skill and a mindset useful 40 years ago, but not today.

Who says, "When I grow up I want to be a good student?"

No one.

Three years ago I attended a student panel on creativity in schools at The New England Association of Schools and Colleges Conference. Four students talked about work they were passionate about. Sadly, for three of them, they had to work around school rather than in school to pursue those passions.

So what's the answer?

Move beyond lectures, seminars, and prescriptive labs (vs. experiments). Design curricula and learning opportunities that divert from conventional linear learning. Create ways to implement what I call the "New Basics," creative problem-solving, collaboration, iteration, visual communication, empathy, tech and media literacy, and presentation skills. These "New Basics" should be part of students' day-to-day experiences at all times. In 7th grade history, 10th grade math, 12th grade art. Everywhere. Give kids opportunities to do real work and to solve real problems, not just realistic work. Design assessments that go beyond tests and papers and tap into students' passions. Encourage students to write code to produce infographics for that 7th grade history project. Urge them to create a film for the 11th grade environmental studies class. In all classes set up assignments that demand they iterate rather than get the answer on the first try.

So, Duckworth is right. We do need to get gritty about getting our kids grittier. But, to do that, education needs to adopt a growth mindset and inject many new ways for kids to feel passionate about what they are doing in school. We need to throw 10,000 hours at this.

If we do, we will find out how gritty kids can be.